Travel to Cuba Now: An Update with Jennine Cohen
Cuba has been making headlines recently as President Obama has announced the loosening of restrictions with the island nation. we sat down with GeoEx’s Managing Director for the Americas, Jennine Cohen, to talk about the effects and implications of the new regulations, and about travel to Cuba now.
Before we dive into the new regulations, let’s put Cuba in perspective. What makes it such a special destination?
Though it is just 100 miles from Key West, Cuba has remained one of the truly different places on the planet culturally, in part because of the US embargo. When many people think of Cuba, they think of a place trapped in time, of its glorious past, of old cars and crumbling buildings. But this is just the surface of Cuba. To understand the intricacies of what’s happening there right now, you must go deeper. Our trips allow travelers not only to enjoy the visceral side of Cuba—the dance, the music, and the cuisine—but also to enter into the heart of the culture through meetings with locals in a variety of fields.
You clearly have a passion for Cuba yourself. What’s your connection?
I grew up in South Florida, a place where Cuban-Americans and Cuban culture have a strong influence. My dad and grandma would often take me to Miami, where they introduced me to the sounds of salsa, Cuban-American art, drinking cortaditos, and eating at famous Cuban-American eateries like Versailles. Those experiences inspired me to embark on a lifelong journey to explore Latin America more deeply. Throughout my childhood I also heard stories of how my grandparents would take weekend trips to Cuba in the ‘50s to stay at the famous Hotel Nacional.
So my mind was truly blown when I first joined a GeoEx trip in Cuba—I had never been in a place that had so deeply influenced and oriented my own life and that felt so utterly foreign at the same time. The sounds of the birds in the morning reminded me of the sounds of my Florida childhood, yet the old cars, the propaganda murals on every corner, and the cobblestone streets felt like a completely different world from the meticulously landscaped and sometimes sterile home of my childhood. I think many GeoEx travelers are enthralled by the idea of traveling to a neighboring country that has been off limits for so many years, yet has influenced US culture in so many ways.
Since that visit, I have had the great fortune of managing Cuba as part of a larger Latin America portfolio for more than a decade.
How have the new regulations for US citizens traveling to Cuba changed?
US citizens wishing to travel as tourists to Cuba are still required to take part in a full-time people-to-people schedule through a US-based operator. People-to-people programming encourages educational exchanges between US citizens and Cubans.
As the regulations are relaxed, more travel companies will be able to offer programming to Cuba.
How are the new changes in regulation going to affect GeoEx’s programming in Cuba?
For this season, GeoEx’s trips will remain the same. Our program in Cuba has been wildly successful for the last three years due to the great team we have both here in the office and in the field. Our itinerary will continue to include intimate meetings, conversations, and performances with a variety of locals, including dancers, farmers, architects, economists, artists, and others. For future seasons (the travel season in Cuba is generally from November to April), we are thinking expansively about the kinds of programming we may be able to offer due to the new regulations and are researching additional opportunities.
Can I travel to Cuba on my own for touristic purposes?
Legally, no. You need to book a trip through a US-based provider that offers educational exchange-based trips to Cuba on a full-time schedule.
Are there now regularly scheduled flights to Cuba?
No. Right now, only charter flights are available. In the relatively near future, charter flights will most likely be available from more US cities than at present, and eventually, commercial flights will come onto the market. But the timetable for this is uncertain.
How quickly will announced changes go into effect?
The biggest change that is effective immediately is that travelers can now bring back up to $400 of any kind of merchandise, $100 of which can be alcohol or cigars. Regarding banking and commercial flights, these will take time to be set up by private US-based companies.
Will Cuba be changing right away?
While we’re sure Cuba will change eventually due to the loosening of regulations and what we expect will one day be an influx of American tourists, this process will take time since US-based companies will need to figure out how to set up shop in Cuba.
Generally speaking, Cuba is an incredibly complicated and nuanced place to do business. The success of our trips leans heavily on our long-term relationships and our years of experience with seasoned leaders and partners, as well as experts in the field.
We have worked under the people-to-people regulations for years and know how to navigate these regulations. Operating under them has forced us to craft thoughtfully curated trips that both meet US government requirements and make for engaging and thought-provoking experiences in the field. Cuba presents unique operational challenges, and we pride ourselves on our ability to operate in real time, continually juggling appointments with experts, and making improvements and changes to our trips based on the best available options at any given moment within a constantly changing landscape.
While the timeline of change in Cuba is uncertain, two things are clear: One is that the culture will inevitably change, and the other is that travelers right now have a special opportunity to visit Cuba when monumental changes are in the making and traditional Cuban culture is still robustly alive.
It’s truly a historic time in Cuba, and if you'd like to be a part of it, the time to go is now!
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